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Cityscape: What Next for Maxwell Street

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You wouldn't have known it from watching or reading the news, but 1st Ward alderman Theodore Mazola picked exactly the right moment to get into a wrestling match with 27th Ward alderman Dexter Watson. It was during the City Council meeting on April 13. The council was debating whether to sell the land on which the Maxwell Street market operates to the University of Illinois at Chicago; Mazola observed sarcastically that none of the aldermen objecting to the sale had welcomed the market into their wards.

When Watson got the floor, he replied, "I have no problem supporting it in the 27th Ward. I would not take city services away from it, if it were in the 27th Ward. I would not allow the streets not to be cleaned, if it were in the 27th Ward. I would not allow the police two blocks away not to come over there, if it were in the 27th Ward. How can you do that, Alderman Mazola, in the 1st Ward?"

That's when Mazola lost it. Unable to get presiding alderman Lorraine Dixon's attention (the mayor wasn't there), he rushed over and tried to grab Watson's microphone, while the gallery roared and the TV cameras rolled. The cops were out in force to control a possibly unruly audience of Maxwell Street vendors, and so found themselves far away from where trouble actually broke out.

Mazola later apologized, and he and Watson shook hands. But his outburst was neither random nor senseless. Watson had exposed what Maxwell Street market advocates see as the self-serving hypocrisy of the Daley administration: blaming the market for the unappetizing results of the city's having minimized services. Having garbage around makes it easy for Mayor Daley to blow off the market--"The people down there don't like to live next door to filth," he said outside council chambers the day of the vote. A bit more diplomatically, a letter from his Department of Consumer Services has told vendors, "The romance of the existing market is gone."

Did the city engineer its disappearance? The vendors and the media are sure of it; they say the city had Dumpsters there until a couple of years ago. According to Krystin Grenon of the Friends of the Maxwell Street Market, in the spring of 1990 the city cleaned the market and agreed to empty Dumpsters and to ticket and fine dumpers, but the enforcement soon collapsed and the Dumpsters were removed a year or two later.

But Mazola denies any cutback in city services. He stated in the council that the city now spends $250,000 a year on cleaning the market, and would have to spend three times as much to do it right. Terry Levin, speaking for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, says the annual cost is closer to $300,000, including weekly rodent control required by the large amounts of food left behind every week. According to Streets and San officials, the 1990 agreement fell apart because Maxwell Street vendors quit using the Dumpsters after a month or two.

Still, this is a public area the city has allowed to deteriorate in a way that would be unimaginable in Daley Plaza or Grant Park. The market, of course, has no legal claim to the land on which it squats one day a week, and little clout to enforce such a claim if it had one. The Daley administration held all the cards. But, as market advocates see it, even that wasn't enough. It had to stack the deck too.

The fight to keep the Maxwell Street market in place isn't quite over. The City Council voted 33-10 to sell the land, but the university won't have the money to buy until the Illinois General Assembly appropriates it. The Maxwell Street Vendors Coalition is trying to build a coalition of African American, Latino, and downstate legislators to block the money. And there is some talk of a lawsuit that would argue the council needed 38 votes to pass the sale.

Another rearguard action comes from the Levine Hillel Center at UIC, where Elliot Zashin and Lori Grove have nominated the neighborhood associated with the market between 1880 and 1944 to the National Register of Historic Places. But even if that neighborhood got on the register it wouldn't include much of today's market, and designation wouldn't protect what it did. But it would require any owner to consult with the state before making changes, and Zashin hopes National Register designation might eventually nudge the university away from its historic predisposition toward building an all-new, walled-in campus.

The Daley administration's official viewpoint is, why fight when you can switch to a new, improved market a few blocks east, on Canal Street between Roosevelt Road and 15th Place? Four times last month, consumer services commissioner Caroline Shoenberger met with vendors to discuss the new market. Putting her in charge of it makes a certain bureaucratic sense: her department already manages cabbies and farmers markets. It makes personal sense, too: her knowledge of some Spanish, her past as a legal aid lawyer, and her willingness to listen make it hard to dislike her. (Even at the first, least friendly meeting with vendors, she worked the room as if it were full of aldermen.) And her occasional ambivalence is disarming: "I went to the University of Wisconsin in the late 60s," she said while being peppered with hostile questions at the first meeting. "I never thought I'd be in a position like this."

Most of all, Shoenberger's appointment makes strategic sense. She can't be blamed for the Daley administration's history of dubious dealings with the market because she wasn't involved at all until February; it was the Department of Planning and Development that decided where to move the market. Were there separate, seemingly divisive English and Spanish meetings, as one vendor complained? Were neither vendors nor neighbors consulted on the move to Canal? Is the new site in one possible path of the downtown circulator trolley and next door to one of two likely sites for Daley's proposed riverboat casino? Shoenberger can say none of these things are her fault. And they aren't.

"If I thought this [move to Canal Street] was just an excuse to get rid of the market, I couldn't do it," Shoenberger told the vendors at one meeting. "The more help I can get from you, the easier this difficult transition will be."

She won't get any help from the vendors association. German Leyte of that group describes the Consumer Services meetings as "brainwashing the people," and adds, "They'll regret it if the market moves over there." He predicts the Canal Street market will fizzle out by winter.

If Canal Street doesn't kill the market, it will surely put it on life support. For one thing, it's a lot smaller. (One vendor drove by to check it out and told Shoenberger at the next meeting, "It's going to be like putting ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag." Others claim a compressed market will generate more excitement.) City planners estimate that it could accommodate only 450 of the approximately 1,100 licensed vendors, assuming that everyone occupied an 18-foot-by-18-foot space. Even if some part-time vendors drop out (as Shoenberger expects) and if the rest can get by with less space (as she hopes), not everyone who sells at Maxwell Street is going to fit.

Worse yet, these smaller spaces will cost significantly more money. The Daley administration wants the market to pay for its own services and supervision, at a rate likely to cost each vendor $25 to $30 a week instead of the current $25 a year. Three Consumer Services employees will supervise a management company (yet to be chosen) that will supervise the market; whether vendor fees must cover departmental salaries as well as the management company's fees hasn't been decided.

Paying your own way sounds reasonable; after all, the city doesn't pick up garbage for commercial establishments. But the market somehow manages to fall on the wrong side of every bureaucratic distinction. Like Taste of Chicago, it's supposed to collect and pay sales taxes. Unlike Taste of Chicago, it's supposed to pay for its own cleanup. Catch-22.

Some vendors would welcome better security, but they aren't sure they need all this expensive help. Vendor Artis Henderson regards garbage collection and police patrols as a matter of course. "Doesn't the city already sweep along Canal Street? Well, OK. And what do they mean by 'security'? All I mean is regular police patrols, like everywhere else in the city. A private security guard every few feet would just be seen as a challenge to would-be thieves." Charles Henderson, who sells tapes and (with Ernest Jackson) rents tables to other vendors, doesn't think that having a market manager really improves matters. He says the last one, back in the 1970s, "regulated with an iron fist. People thought the market would fall apart when he left, but it worked better. When people settle something their own selves, they're all satisfied and it stays settled. If someone settles it for them, there's resentment."

And "pay your own way" applies only when you're poor. ("Now that the market is African American and Hispanic," thundered Alderman Watson, "now the market is to be changed.") Where were the bean counters in 1987, when Sears got $200 million to move out to Hoffman Estates? Or last month, when the state gave Motorola "only" $36 million to move even farther out? As Fifth Ward alderman Lawrence Bloom said in the April 13 debate, "If the city of Chicago subsidized this economic development enterprise [Maxwell Street] the way it does those whose lobbyists wear suits and ties, it might be more welcome."

Bloom, himself a known wearer of suits, is on to something. Maxwell Street is the bottom rung of the entrepreneurial ladder. At Canal Street it will cost up to 50 times as much to reach that rung. You might think that the mayor of a city plagued by poverty and crime would want to keep that rung within reach, even if it cost some money. But you would be wrong.

Those vendors who go the free-market route and try hawking their merchandise on some other street should beware: at that same April 13 council meeting, aldermen voted to ban peddlers from the First Ward (including the entire Loop) and from the 44th Ward (except within 1,000 feet of Wrigley Field on private property with written permission). Several other wards already have complete or partial peddling bans. "I sell neckties and sunglasses," Ciaran Burns, a young man with an Irish accent, told me after one of Shoenberger's meetings. "It used to be legal west and north of the river. Now they're pushing me out to Western Avenue. What am I going to sell to tourists on Western Avenue?"

That's a rhetorical question, folks. The answer, in Mayor Daley's new Chicago, is, "Nothing, we hope." This is a city whose mayor lives in Dearborn Park, not Bridgeport; a city where the public housing high rises first mentioned for demolition and dispersal are not the most violent but those most coveted by private developers. It's a neat, clean, predictable, orderly city with walls around it.

If that's your kind of town, sit back, let the mayor bring it on, and hope you can buy your way inside its walls. If it's not your kind of town, don't expect the Maxwell Street vendors to stop it for you. The genius of Maxwell Street is making deals, not confronting political gentrifiers. Charles Henderson is not especially enthusiastic about being moved to Canal Street. But he comes to some of Shoenberger's meetings anyway. He has a problem Consumer Services didn't foresee. At Maxwell Street his crew spends all day Saturday setting up tables for vendors to sell from the next day. (Then they watch them all night, but even so "we lose some almost every week." A few years ago they had to raise the price from $5 to $7 a table to cover their losses.) At the new market on Canal Street, they may not be able to start setting up until midnight Saturday. How can they be ready in time?

"I'm not sure how we're going to do it in the dark," he says. "But don't get me wrong. We've been doing it seven years. We've never failed. We'll find a way--otherwise we don't get paid."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Steve Gillig.

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